Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905–06; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946; © Estate of Pablo Picasso
By the time Gertrude met Picasso, the Steins were well known as collectors of modern art. The apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus was hung with works by Braques, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse. Leo Stein was the first to see and be struck by the work of the then unknown Spaniard. The painting was the Jeune Fille Aux Fleures. Gertrude didn't like the painting at first and Leo's decision to buy it lead to a ferocious family argument. But her response to Picasso, the man, was far different. He impressed his with his big black eyes and air of vitality. But dislike turned to liking and for the next forty-one years, interrupted by the inevitable quarrels between two such oversized egos, they were friends. *
In 1905, at the end of his Harlequin period, Picasso asked her to sit for a portrait, and the results (not Cubism yet but on the way to) were dark, brooding, and strange. Stein is shown seated in a large armchair, wearing her favorite brown velvet coat and skirt. Her impressive demeanor and massive body are aptly suggested by the monumental depiction.
Picasso actually completed the head after a trip to Spain in fall 1906. His reduction of the figure to simple masses and the face to a mask with heavy lidded eyes reflects his recent encounter with African, Roman, and Iberian sculpture and foreshadows his adoption of Cubism. He painted the head, which differs in style from the body and hands, without the sitter, testimony to the fact that it was his personal vision, rather than empirical reality, that guided him in his work
He famously said, "Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will," which was quoted by Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein said later, "I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me."
The completion of the portrait marked the beginning of Stein’s interest in portraiture and "resemblance," concepts that would come to influence her writing nearly as much as Picasso’s Cubist philosophies.
Stein’s literary portrait of Picasso "If I Told Him," completed nearly twenty years later and first published in Vanity Fair, is a similarly strange but tender attempt to capture a resemblance of his genius. It begins: "If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him." As a painter might wonder if he is flattering his subject sufficiently, Stein wonders if Picasso will like the "portrait" she writes for him as he hears it told back to him—his own Cubist philosophies translated into language. A later passage addresses how one might create "resemblance" in a verbal passage, which becomes something like repetition:
"Exact resemblance. To exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance, exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because."
In fact, Stein continued to defend the representational nature of Cubism throughout her life, as if one could only get to an exact "resemblence," or image of life, through the distortion, repetition, and altering of the present moment to mimic perception. In her 1938 book Picasso she mentions an incident in 1909 when Picasso, after having completed the Cubist paintings Horta de Ebro and Maison sur la Colline, showed Stein the photographs that inspired the paintings. Stein swore that they were no different than the photographs.
If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.
Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.
If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if Napoleon if
Napoleon if I told him. If I told him if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him would he like it would he like it if I told him.
Exactly as as kings.
Feeling full for it.
Exactitude as kings.
So to beseech you as full as for it.
Exactly or as kings.
*From Gertrude Stein and the Charmed Circle by James R. Mellow
Gertrude reading various selections of her prose
SFMOMA: The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde to Premiere in San Francisco and Travel to Paris and New York in 2011–2012 . Please see www.sfmoma.org/tickets for full information.
Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. Contemporary Jewish Museum: http://www.thecjm.org/
Picasso from the Musee National Picasso, Paris, France
Really nice three part essay by SF Mike on the Steins and their collection: